Undervaluing User Research is a Deadly Disease

by Jared M. Spool

During our UX strategy workshops, I ask design leaders to visualize the user research activities in their projects. They start with a timeline of a recent project, which shows the project’s kickoff date, when the project shipped, and major milestones that occurred along the way.

On top of that timeline, I ask them to answer questions about three groups of team members:

  1. When, during the project, did the team’s user experience professionals spend time observing real users interacting with the design under development? This group of UX professionals includes researchers, designers, content writers, or anyone else who sees themselves as designing the user experience.

  2. When did the other full-time professionals working on the project spend time observing real users interacting with the design? This group includes developers, product managers, and other stakeholders whose main responsibility was the delivery of the product or service.

  3. When did the other influencers working on the project spend time observing real users interacting with the design? This group includes the influencers who pop into the project for short durations, exerting influence in their wake. This includes executives who swoop-and-poop, critical high-ranking stakeholders, and folks like Legal and Compliance.

They mark up their timelines, showing when these three groups had a chance to observe users in action with the new design, with the previous version of the design, with competitors’ versions, or without using any existing product or service.

The takeaway: Not enough research

When they’re done, I ask the design leaders what their initial takeaways are from the exercise. The unanimous response: “We’re not doing enough research.”

Going into the exercise, they thought they were doing well with their research efforts. Many of them were conducting regular usability testing in most of their projects. Some were getting additional time conducting more ethnographic-style studies, getting into the customers’ workplaces or homes, and bringing back deeper insights into how the product or service might be used.

But the common observation amongst the design leaders is that there are too many holes in the project timeline when no research is happening. They need to find new ways to increase the research capability of project teams.

The distance between influence and critical information

Just yesterday, one design leader shared an additional insight with me. “The people who exert the most influence over the user experience often have the least amount of contact with our users,” he said.

I’ve found this to be completely true. In most projects, there are executives and stakeholders who make critical decisions that influence our users’ experiences. They decide how much money will be budgeted for the project, how much time the project can take, and how many people will work on it. Each of these decisions will have a dramatic influence over what the team can deliver to their users.

Yet, these executives and stakeholders are insulated from the users. They don’t have the deep awareness of the users’ struggles and delights with the product or service. They’re making important decisions without all the information they need.

Increasing exposure for team members

It’s at this point in the workshop that the design leaders have a critical epiphany. They need to increase the exposure that these influencers and other team members have to their users.

Exposure is how we measure the amount of contact team members have to users. We’ve found there’s a direct relationship between the amount of exposure team members have and the quality of the designs they deliver.

Increasing exposure makes users real to our team members and influencers. They now see when users struggle because of poor design decisions we’ve made. They also see when we’ve delighted users by delivering something that’s helpful to them.

Chronic undervaluing of user research

Usability testing is often the first place teams start their efforts to increase exposure. In these research sessions, they observe users interacting with the product or service. They give the research participants specific tasks and observe how the users complete the assignment.

While this is a good place to start with research, usability testing often comes towards the end of the project. The teams wait until they have a robust design for the participants to use.

This end-of-project approach limits the amount of change that can happen. It’s rare for a usability testing outcome to demonstrate that the product or service needs a major overhaul to truly meet users needs. At best, the outcomes are a list of incremental improvements.

As a result, the rest of the organization sees user research as a refinement tool that happens after the big decisions have been nailed down. They don’t see the research helping with those big decisions, because the technique limits what we can learn.

If we don’t have enough maturity in our user research efforts, we run the risk of limiting the understanding our team members and influencers can gain. And, in turn, they don’t see user research as a valuable contributor to their decision-making process.

Raising the value by increasing user research maturity

In her recent presentation at the Design Leadership Summit in Toronto, Jen Cardello, Head of UX Research & Insights for Fidelity Investments, shared how she increased the value of the user research maturity.

When she arrived at Fidelity, the majority of the user research effort was reactive usability testing. They were refining products, but not contributing critical insights about their users to the bigger decisions.

Jen and her team created a research framework with three simple perspectives:

  • The right problem: Do they know that the team is working on the right problem in the first place?

  • The right solution: Given they understand the problem, are they working on the right way to solve the problem?

  • Doing it right: With the knowledge that they’re working on the best solution, do they know the right way to implement and deliver that solution?

With this framework in hand, she launched a major strategic effort to educate teams on how to best take advantage of Fidelity’s research capabilities. She integrated the research into the project plan, using this framework to define research activities that happen all the way through the project timeline.

She focused on making user research more proactive within the organization. In turn, this increased the insights the teams integrated into their decision-making process.

The organization now values user research more, because they have a wider lens into the users’ experience. That wider lens came from a strategy to improve user research maturity.

Investing in increasing user research maturity is the cure

The biggest impediment to delivering well-designed products and services is a lack of understanding about our users. The team members and influencers can’t make smart design decisions with information they don’t have.

When an organization undervalues research, it’s a deepening, darkening, downward spiral of delivering poorly-designed products. Important influencers are only guessing when they’re making critical decisions. The quality of delivered products and services continue to get worse. This is a deadly cycle.

Investing in user research is the best cure. Increasing both the amount of exposure and the maturity of the research efforts will remedy this chronic condition.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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